zondag, december 2, 2018

Science and religion historically have a complex relationship. A few decades ago European scientist were imprisoned or worse if their discoveries contradicted the Christian worldview. Now fanatic atheists state that you can not be a scientist and religious at the same time. At the annual Interfaith Conference at the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague participants came together to exchange views on this year's theme 'Faith in Science?'. Over 130 international students and other participants from all over the Netherlands explored the relation between faith and science, each from her or his own belief or worldview.

The conference on November 18th was organised by Initiatives of Change Netherlands in collaboration with Haastu and the International Student Chaplaincy. The conference was graced with performances by the Surinam-Hindu Prewien Pandohi-Mishre, a participant of the Festival Sacred Songs that took place in The Hague the same weekend.

Interfaith Conference 2018
 

 
Building life

Cees Dekker, Professor of Molecular Biophysics in Delft (Netherlands), started the day with a lecture in which he gave his personal view on the theme. Dekker is both a scientist and an active Christian. He researches the smallest parts of a cell (single-molecule), with the ultimate goal of being able to built a living cell. ‘If we can built something, we can understand it. We have to explore and research all the possibilities in Gods nature – that is something that is given to us.’

According to Dekker – who actively engages in the public discussion on science and religion - the conflict between science and religion is a false stereotype. Science is a method, a human activity that fits both in the theistic and the atheistic world view, he states. ‘It is a pity that science in the West often is linked with atheism.’ For him, his work as a scientist and his Chritstian religion complement each other.
 

Reincarnation

After the keynote speech, participants have the opportunity to share their thoughts at the dialogue tables, during a ‘human library’ and during lunch and coffee. They discuss questions such as: What is science? What is religion? Do you have to choose between the two? And is science the new religion? During the discussions between young and old, agnostics, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhist, Bahai and between people from different cultures various views on science and religion emerge.

interfaith Conference 2018‘Both religion and science come from God,’ says Egyptian Muslim Sahar. ‘So if there is a contradiction, we created it ourselves.’ Eileen, a Buddhist  from Germany, explains how the Dalai Lama emphasizes the importance of science: ‘If scientific discoveries go against my belief, I have to find a way to integrate them and not put my ideas above them.’ As an example she mentions reincarnation. ‘Currently there is no proof for it, but also not against it. If they ever find proof against it, I will have to change my views. On a deeper layer I try to see reincarnation as a metaphor: you can start  every day anew.’
 

Environment

The non-religious Milan Bos, who studies Management Technology at the TU Delft, became fascinated by the role of religion during his travels abroad. ‘As long as everybody stays open to the opinion of others, there doesn’t have to be a problem between science and religion.’ However, he is critical of how some religious perspectives humans are put above animals. ‘Humans are not essentially different, only a bit more intelligent. Also in science you find this idea of superiority. It is maybe less explicit, but often scientist also have the idea that the world is ours. Why else would we treat the world as we do right now?’

Participant Livita, Interfaith Conference 2018Indonesian student Livita Sumali shares this worry of how people treat the earth and everything that lives on it. But she thinks both science and religion have a positive role to play. ‘From a historical perspective, I see a clash between science and religion. But I see an opportunity for them to support each other, for example in the environmental challenges of our times. Science can offer us the technological means, religion can motivate people to change their personal behaviour.’

 

Algorithm

'Religion also can help to regulate scientific progress', suggests a participant at the dialogue tables. For example, in the field of Artificial Intelligence. ‘Science itself has no morality. It is about the people behind it and how they use it.’ Software developer Lena Tichem, who is sharing her story as a ‘human book’ in the afternoon, exlpains that her personal belief helps her to navigate the field of data science. ‘Data science is a new field that is changing very fast. Yet, an old book like the Bible can give me guidance for the questions that arise in this field.’

'Data and algorithms are never neutral', she says. Behind every number there are numerous assumptions. With different data you can tell different stories and even if you have the same data you can tell multiple stories. ‘It is important to realise that data and algorithms have their shortcomings and they can play a role in excluding and discriminating people. 'This stands in sharp contrast with the commandment in religious texts that you ttreat others as we wish others to treat us.'

Another problem that she sees, is that software systems are growing bigger. ‘And the bigger the system, the less people feel responsible for it.’ Again, religion could play its part here, as it emphasizes personal responsibility. ‘If I have to change something in a software system, I always try to think of the bigger picture and to talk about it with others.’

Whether you talk about religion or science, during the conversations and meetings this day it becomes clear that eventually it is always about the practice and the people behind it. How do people let their religion guide them? To what use do they put their scientific discoveries? Which economical or personal interests play a role in this? Big questions, but also many small, personal stories. And just as every scientific research raises new questions, every conversation this day gives food for new thoughts.
 

Dialogue Table Interfaith Conference 2018
 


Interfaith Conference

This was the eleventh edition of the Interfaith Conference at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS). The annual event started out as a small-scale interreligious meeting for international students. By now it has grown into a conference attended by (mostly international) people from all over the Netherlands. The conference was this year organised by Initiatives of Change, in collaboration with Haastu, the International Student Chaplaincy and a group of students from the ISS.
 

Report: Irene de Pous; Photos: Nur Amalia Gustyare and Laura Reijnders